Offbeat Attractions in All 50 States
Museums, historic sites, and other tourist traps are on most travelers' to-do lists, but sometimes the out-of-the-way or out-of-the-ordinary turns out to be more memorable. The United States, in all its breadth and diversity, offers countless offbeat attractions that are free or cheap to enjoy. With one fascinating sight in each state featured here, summer road trippers are sure to find something that will make them do a double take.
Related: 11 Tips for Taking a Road Trip on the Cheap
The Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman is also known as "Jerusalem in Miniature." Handmade by a Benedictine monk, the grotto is home to 125 miniature replicas of historic buildings, events, and shrines from around the world. Many of the pieces were made with donated materials -- everything from colored glass and pieces of marble to bathroom tiles. Visitors marvel at the detail.
Deep in the Petersburg Census Area is Natural Rock Face, an unusual stone formation in the Alaskan wilderness that resembles a face in profile. The rocky outcrop is not the easiest destination to reach, but it's completely free if you happen to be passing through southern Alaska. It's perhaps best viewed from a boat, which affords a stunning vista of the rock face with a glacier backdrop.
At Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, about an hour's drive southeast of Phoenix, visitors can see the remains of one of the largest prehistoric structures in North America. The Casa Grande and surrounding buildings and walls date back to about 1350. Children 15 and under are free; adults must purchase a $5 ticket that's valid for seven days.
In Eureka Springs, a small theme park draws large crowds of Christians. The main feature is "The Great Passion Play," a nearly two-hour re-enactment of the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. Special effects and live animals complement the 150-person cast. There is also a 67-foot, 2 million-pound Christ of the Ozarks statue and, somewhat inexplicably, a section of the Berlin Wall.
Beaches near Fort Bragg were once used as garbage dumps, until cleanup programs commenced in 1967. Although most of the trash was removed, small pieces of broken glass remained on the beaches, and the ocean smoothed their edges over time. Removing sea glass from the beaches is against the law, but the International Sea Glass Museum offers free admission and sells sea glass jewelry.
Tiny Town and Railroad, outside Denver, isn't just a few miniature houses; it's a complete model town shrunk down. This stop is a hit with young children, who can enjoy riding the train, exploring the miniature buildings, and playing on the playground. Consider bringing a picnic lunch, as the food offerings are limited and overpriced, visitors say.
Unlike a "Jurassic Park" movie or Universal Studios attraction, Wells Dinosaur Haven in Uncasville has no admission cost. The proprietor, Jeff Wells, built more than 30 dinosaur replicas, including a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex (playing a mandolin), in his backyard.
Want to live forever? The Fountain of Youth in Lewes was allegedly discovered by Dutch settlers in 1631 (which begs the question why they aren't still around). Unfortunately, the fountain hasn't been flowing recently, Roadside America reports, but it can't hurt to stop, snap a photo, and see if you can find any life-preserving water.
Aptly named, Monkey Island in Homosassa is inhabited by five monkeys: Ralph, Sassy, Ebony, Eve, and Emily. Homosassa Riverside Resort, which owns the island and takes care of the animals, offers boat tours and dinner cruises that promise an up-close look at the monkeys.
In Elbert County stand the Georgia Guidestones, five massive granite blocks that are astronomically aligned. Sometimes referred to as the "American Stonehenge," the guidestones are inscribed with instructions that urge humanity to live in tune with nature. These "commandments" appear in multiple languages, including Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Near the southern tip of the Big Island, Papakolea Beach stuns visitors with its blue waters and green sand. It takes about an hour and a half to drive to the beach from the Kahaluu-Keauhou area. Then, expect a 2.5-mile walk to the beach, plus a climb down a steep cliff. The trek may be worth it to see one of only four green sand beaches in the world.
Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood promises patrons a chance to stay in the belly of a beagle: Chainsaw artists built the inn to resemble the canine species. Media outlets have declared the structure one of the world's wackiest hotels. Although lodging costs about $100 a night, visits and gawking are free.
The Leaning Tower of Niles doesn't have the same cachet as its inspiration in the village's sister city of Pisa, but it certainly is an odd attraction to find outside Chicago. At half the size of the original, Niles' tower isn't overly impressive, according to reviews on TripAdvisor, but it's worth a quick stop and photo.
The town of Santa Claus doesn't disappoint visitors. Visit Frosty's Fun Center miniature golf course, the Santa Claus Museum, the Santa Claus Post Office, Santa's Candy Castle, and Santa's Stables (with horses rather than reindeer) for a festive time year-round.
To break up a cross-country road trip, retrace the path of Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones to the Field of Dreams (yes, that one), a free attraction in Dyersville. School groups sometimes claim the field for games, but when it's open, everyone can take a turn running the bases or playing catch. Watch for ghost players to join the fun.
Everyone can experience a place like no other while visiting Dorothy's House and the Land of Oz in Liberal,. The address: 567 Yellow Brick Road. Reviewers posting on TripAdvisor say the Dorothy-led tour is a bit cheesy, but overall it's a highly rated attraction.
At the Apple Valley Hillbilly Garden and Toyland, visitors fondly remember their childhoods while perusing a museum chockablock with toys. Visual puns on the grounds (such as an outdoor living room for old tires -- a "retirement home") elicit laughter and an occasional eye roll. Although entrance to this Calvert City attraction is free, donations keep the place running.
The actor Nicolas Cage may be alive and well, but a 9-foot stone pyramid holds his spot in New Orleans' famous St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It is inscribed with "Omnia Ab Uno" (Latin for "Everything From One") and adorned with lipstick kisses from visitors. The cemetery is a stop on the hop-on-hop-off tour bus route.
Timber Tina's Great Maine Lumberjack Show in Trenton is performed every evening (except July 4) throughout the summer. Watch as two teams compete at ax throwing, logrolling, crosscut sawing, and nine other events.
Mallows Bay in Charles County is a ship graveyard that's home to hundreds of abandoned vessels, many of them former wooden steamships intended for battle during World War I. Visitors enjoy canoeing or kayaking between the wrecks and fishing for bass and snakehead that call the ships home.
People don't usually expect to see an animatronic Louis Armstrong while furniture shopping, but Jordan's Furniture in Natick has replicated New Orleans' Bourbon Street outside Boston. There's a Mardi Gras FX show Friday through Sunday nights and a trolley-car-turned-ice-cream-stand dubbed "Streetcar Named Dessert."
Artist Tyree Guyton began decorating blighted houses on Heidelberg Street in Detroit in 1986, drawing attention to an issue facing cities around the country. Today the Heidelberg Project is a nonprofit focused on arts, education, and community development, as well as an outdoor art project visited by hundreds of thousands each year.
In Darwin, west of Minneapolis, sits the world's largest ball of twine made by a single person (that would be Francis Johnson). The massive ball weighs 17,400 pounds and took 29 years to complete. It's housed in the town gazebo, and a museum gift shop next door sells twine-ball starter kits.
Near Port Gibson and Alcorn State University, 23 barren columns mark the site of a mansion built in the mid-19th century. The Windsor Ruins are on the National Register of Historic Places and a favorite backdrop for local photographers.
A giant is stirring in Chesterfield. The 70-foot-long, 17-foot-high "Awakening" sculpture is made up of several aluminum pieces depicting a giant digging himself out of the ground. The Chesterfield sculpture is a replica of an original outside Washington, D.C.
The Merry Widow Health Mine near Basin has been helping people with pain for more than 50 years, according to the website. Relief from hay fever, asthma, eczema, migraines, arthritis, and other ailments have been recorded by visitors who have breathed the radon gas and sipped the mineral water inside the mine.
Buried in Seward County is the world's largest time capsule (certified by Guinness in 1977). Its contents include a car and thousands of other items collected by an eccentric resident. The vault isn't supposed to be opened until July 4, 2025, 50 years after it was sealed, but those passing by in the meantime can see the large monuments that mark the site.
Fly Geyser is a part human-made, part-natural wonder in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. In 1964 a test well was drilled and improperly sealed, and a geyser started to spout. The geothermal water created otherworldly green and red mineral formations that continue to grow. (Visitors can't get too close, as the geyser is on private property.)
Chutters has been in the candy business in Littleton for more than 100 years and boasts the world's longest candy counter (112 feet). Locals and tourists enjoy stopping by to fill up a bag with just about any type of candy or buy some of the store's famous fudge.
Lucy the Elephant, six stories of tin and wood, stands on the New Jersey coast in Josephine Harron Park in the town of Margate. On July 18 the town will celebrate the 135th birthday of the elephant, built in 1881 as a scheme to attract land buyers to the area. The structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been used as a hotel, private mansion, and tavern. Guided tours are available.
Ever since a UFO allegedly crashed in the area in 1947, Roswell has been filled with oddities. The town itself is something of an offbeat attraction. It's home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and most everything is UFO-themed -- even the local McDonald's.
Eternal flames burn around the world to commemorate notable people and events. In Chestnut Ridge Park in upstate New York, a natural eternal flame burns behind a waterfall, fueled by a stream of natural gas (although it does need to be relit occasionally). One reviewer who visited in winter described the experience on Roadtrippers and compares the setting to Narnia. The falls were frozen, he says, but the flame continued to burn.
"Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky," on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, has been likened to a hobbit's house. It's a camera obscura created by the artist Chris Drury. Visitors can sit inside and see the trees and sky outside projected onto the walls.
The Enchanted Highway is a roughly 30-mile section of road between the towns of Gladstone and Regent. Seven large sculptures mark the way, including "Tin Family," "Geese in Flight," and "Pheasants on the Prairie." An eighth, a metal spider web, is under construction. Local artist Gary Greff, who built and maintains the pieces, recently opened an Enchanted Castle Hotel in Regent.
Part triceratops, part combat helicopter, "Triceracopter" is a 30-foot sculpture that was made in 1977 by artist Patricia Renick. To see this magnificent beast, visit the University of Cincinnati's Walter C. Langsam Library.
The only prehistoric Native American site that allows visitors in Oklahoma, Spiro Mounds comprises 12 earthen dwellings. The 150-acre area also houses an archeological center and small gift shop.
On the coast in Cape Perpetua, Thor's Well appears to be a bottomless sinkhole in the ocean, although speculation says it's only about 20 feet deep in reality. It can be dangerous to get close and mesmerizing to gaze inside.
The inspiration behind many a creepy movie, Centralia was once home to more than 2,000 people. Nearby coal mines caught fire in 1962 and continue to burn. Today Centralia is a ghost town with sulfurous steam spewing out of the ground. It's best to visit in the fall and winter, when low temperatures make it easier to see the steam.
Related: 10 Creepy Ghost Towns Across America
Outside the Seabee Museum and Memorial Park in North Kingstown, the Fighting Seabee statue draws attention with its fierce sneer, large hammer, machine gun, and sailor's cap. The bee is the mascot of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalion (abbreviated CB).
Many cities commission murals, and almost every major city has its fair share of graffiti. Rapid City takes this a step further, making Art Alley completely fair game for local artists, who cover the walls, stairs, and telephone pole with cartoons, quotes, portraits, and tags.
"The Mindfield" is an outdoor sculpture made of salvaged steel that stretches to cover about an acre and reaches more than 125 feet into the air at points. It's the work of Billy Tripp, a local Brownsville artist who began construction in 1989 and has said he will continue to add to the sculpture until he dies.
Cadillac Ranch was formed in 1974 when Stanley Marsh, an eccentric millionaire, planted 10 vintage Cadillacs, nose down, into a deserted stretch of dirt outside Amarillo. They sit off Interstate 40, between exits 60 and 62, apparently as a salute to Route 66 and what Marsh considered the golden age of car travel. Common practice is for visitors to bring spray paint, or use a can left there, and leave their mark on the cars.
In addition to being the oldest continuously operating saloon in Utah, Huntsville's Shooting Star Saloon has some unusual taxidermy: a St. Bernard head. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, Buck was one of the largest St. Bernards in history, and his memory is kept alive for saloon patrons.
Tourists visit graveyards around the world to pay their respects and honor the memory of historical leaders, celebrities, and unknown soldiers. The Flavor Graveyard in Waterbury marks something a little different: the resting place of ice cream flavors no longer made by Ben Jerry's.
Considered by some to be one of the ugliest buildings in the world, the Markel Building in Richmond was inspired by a baked potato. Commissioned in 1962, the round building looks a bit like New York's Guggenheim Museum wrapped in foil.
Many tourists visiting Seattle make a point to stop by Pike Place Market to watch mongers throw fish or to sip coffee from the original Starbucks. Take a short detour to the Market Theater Gum Wall, a 15-by-50-foot wall in Post Alley covered with chewing gum inches deep at some points. The wall was given a thorough degumming and cleaning in November 2015, but visitors are back to work adding pieces to the mix. (Tip: Bring a bottle of hand sanitizer.)
Berkeley Springs State Park is a beautiful place to stroll, but one offbeat attraction sets it apart. On the west side of the park, a spring-fed stone tub has been dubbed George Washington's Bathtub, to recognize the way the first president would have bathed.
A statue of King Gambrinus, called "the patron saint of beer," stands watch over the former Pabst Brewing corporate offices in downtown Milwaukee. Raising a pint in the air and wearing a blue tunic and white cape, he looks like a cross between Captain America and King Arthur.
Westbound travelers on Interstate 80 will find an odd monument to Abraham Lincoln at the Summit Rest Area east of Laramie. A bust more than 13 feet tall towers over visitors from its perch atop a 30-foot granite pedestal. What is this giant head of the 16th president doing in Wyoming? I-80 closely tracks the route of the old Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast road built for cars.